Kunqu Opera, known as the “ancestor” of Chinese operas, used to be performed mainly for wealthy, noble and royal families in their private gardens and mansions.
The 600-year-old art form is famous for the refinement and elegance of its music, poetic lyrics and graceful gestures. It was never opera for the masses and is best appreciated in small, intimate settings where details can be appreciated.
After a four-year renovation, an old villa at 9 Shaoxing Road recreates the setting and ambience of the opera with a small, 180-seat theater and private salons.
The Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, which has been based in the old mansion, at last has a proper home in what used to be the French Police Club in downtown Shanghai.
“We are lucky to have our own Kunqu-style small theater. Very few traditional operas have their own small theater downtown,” says Gu Haohao, director of the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe.
It will open in early October. The date will be revealed later.
The theater will also promote Kunqu Opera, listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, through talks, seminars and exhibitions. It will provide a platform for young performers.
“The charm of Kunqu Opera doesn’t lie in lavish setting but in its delicate singing style,” says critic and theater expert Chen Daming from the Shanghai Dramatists Association.
Among all the efforts to revive Kunqu Opera, small theater that emphasizes singing is the best way, Chen says.
“People in a small theater won’t be distant from the stage and can have a better appreciation of the opera’s vocal arts and charm.”
Another example of successful small theater is the real garden version of “Peony Pavilion” at Kezhi Garden in suburban Jiading District, which only seats 200 people. Since it opened in 2010 it has proved successful, attracting around 30,000 theatergoers. It is staged every Saturday at 6pm.
Plays with few characters, simple plots and settings are more suitable to small theaters than large ones, Chen says.
In a small theater, people can better appreciate characters’ emotions and subtle shifts through their singing, dialogue and minute gestures, such as the flick of a finger and lifting of a hem. They can better understand the different meanings of “orchid-like” finger gestures and water-sleeve movements in Kunqu Opera.
Other traditional operas can also be staged in small settings, which critic Chen considers a “good supplement to big stage performances.”
The new small theater on Shaoxing Road will open in October with a series of performances, many of them well-known excerpts of the classics. The flavor of the originals will be retained while performance style will be more flexible.
Before the curtain rises, critics and experts will give brief introductions to the operas and comment during intermissions.
The troupe is considering staging light-hearted and romantic performances on traditional festivals such as Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Lantern Festival.
Promoting traditional art
In addition to the theater, the renovated villa contains a show room for regular exhibitions of costumes, props and video clips that give visitors insight into the opera’s art and history.
The multi-function hall is a venue for conferences, various cultural events and salons for members, as well as buffets.
The 1930s villa is the former French Police Club, where dance parties were held for the policemen and their family members. After 1949, it became a venue for the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe. In 1979 the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe moved in. The villa has witnessed performances by many famous Kunqu and Peking opera artists. It was also rehearsal spaces.
The 38-million-yuan (US$6.13 million) renovation preserves the three-storey villa’s original exterior, while the interior is elegant. A staircase twisting between floors, chandeliers and stained glass windows create a nostalgic atmosphere.
The aim is to make the villa a cultural landmark on Shaoxing Road. The road is already famous for its plane trees, tranquility and cultural atmosphere. Visitors can find book stores, stylish cafes and publishing houses.
It is also expected to be developed into a new tourist attraction along with nearby Shanghai Culture Square, Tianzifang art hub and the Liuli China Museum of art glass.
Since the 1990s, the troupe has promoted Kunqu Opera to young audiences around China. It has around 8,000 club members from all over China, mostly professionals and people interested in Chinese culture.
Kunqu Opera lectures and salons will be held regularly in the renovated villa. Opera fans can attend “Follow Me” classes to learn basic singing and performance skills from members of the troupe. Special performances will cater to the tastes of expatriates.
Kunqu Opera arose around 600 years ago around Kunshan City near Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. In 2001 UNESCO listed it as a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
In recent years Kunqu Opera artists and enthusiasts have tried to innovate, adapt and make the opera more appealing and accessible to young people. This typically means condensing operas which could be performed for many hours.
Taiwan writer and scholar Pai Hsien-yung has created successful adaptations of the classics “The Peony Pavilion” and “The Story of the Jade Hairpin.” They feature simple plot lines and spectacular stage settings.
Zhang Jun, known as the “Kunqu Opera Prince,” has controversially fused New Age, jazz, electronic and rock’n’roll with traditional Kunqu Opera scores and presented “Peony Pavilion” in Kezhi Garden in suburban Zhujiajiao water town.